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Chemistry Education for a Sustainable Future

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By Jenny MacKellar, Program Manager, ACS Green Chemistry Institute & Aurora Ginzburg, Education Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

As we work towards developing green chemistry education resources for the undergraduate chemistry curriculum, we return to our green chemistry education road map vision: “Chemistry education that will equip and inspire chemists to solve the grand challenges of sustainability.” To achieve this vision, we have embarked on a three-year initiative to develop resources for use in undergraduate general chemistry and organic chemistry courses. The goal of the project is to support educators in bringing green and sustainable chemistry into the classroom using a systems thinking approach while using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as context rich examples. As many sustainability challenges become more pressing and urgent (such as the threat of climate change, ocean plastics, and even diversity, inclusion and respect), it’s imperative that chemists see themselves as agents of change for a more sustainable future.

Chemistry’s role in the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Upon first glance at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it might be hard to make immediate connections between the role of chemistry and a larger sustainability goal like Quality Education or Good Health and Wellbeing. However, upon closer examination of the underlying targets and indicators of success for these goals, we start to see the connections to chemistry: 

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Looking at these indicators we can see that if chemists aren’t educated in a way that equips them to provide solutions to the challenges sustainable development raises and to act as global citizens, they will not be able to design and supply the world with more sustainable chemicals and products.  To do this, a systems thinking approach is paramount.

Systems thinking for Chemistry Education

Systems thinking expands the scales, boundaries, and time frames over which we think about chemistry. In traditional chemistry education a reductionist approach is used to drive understanding of chemistry at scales ranging from the atom to the beaker, within a hood, and over short time frames. This approach is meaningful when seeking to understand how the world works at the atomic level.  However, this approach can be limiting because it doesn’t tell students how that chemistry impacts the world around them.  Where do the materials come from and where do they end up? What is their relative abundance? What are the societal impacts across the supply chain when using these materials?  What is the impact of the chemistry on the local community and the world?

Of course, answering all these questions when teaching fundamental chemistry concepts in an undergraduate chemistry course is not possible.  The intent is to make students aware of these issues and to think about questions like these.  Eventually, students should naturally consider a broad range of key questions when studying chemicals, chemical reactions, or processes.  In short, we are hoping to help students become systems thinkers.

Green and sustainable chemistry strategies provide a toolbox for chemists to develop more sustainable solutions. While green chemistry aims to eliminate or reduce impacts, it is all too common for green chemistry modifications to focus only on the beaker scale and therefore have limited overall improvements in chemical or process sustainability. By using a wider lens with life cycle thinking, improvements at one stage in the life cycle can be weighed against increased or decreased impacts at another stage. Systems thinking further opens the lens to consider the interconnectedness of elements within a system, the emergence of properties from a system, the boundaries being used, and how systems change over time.  Systems thinkers will step back and ask questions like what goals am I trying to achieve and what are the broader implications of my choices?  

Using a systems thinking approach, educators teach chemistry fundamentals but in the context of how chemistry affects the world. This creates opportunities to connect foundational content to the complex systems that impact students’ lives, making the content relevant and useful to them regardless of whether or not they continue on to upper division chemistry courses. 

Chemistry Education Module Development

This is where YOU come in. We’re looking for current chemistry educators and curriculum developers to join us on this module development adventure. Our intent is that these modules will contain green and sustainable chemistry examples, theory, and tools that help educators like you to teach foundational chemistry concepts.  The modules will be crafted with a systems thinking approach to help students connect the content to real-world scenarios with the UN Sustainable Development Goals providing the broader context of the challenges. Of course these modules need to be developed with best practices for effective teaching and learning and be paired with best practices for assessing student learning. We will utilize recent chemistry curricular reform efforts that take an evidence-based approach to teaching foundational concepts.

The goal is not to add additional content to the general or organic chemistry curriculum but rather to change the lens through which the content is taught.

If you are interested in joining a module development team, keep an out for the application coming this fall. The applications will be due in November 2020, and Module Development Teams will be formed by the end of 2020. Module development teams start in January 2021 with a series of virtual workshops to get the teams started. For more information about this project, check out the recording of our most recent webinar.